Sexual assault survivor's gut-wrenching photo series gives "middle finger" to Brock Turner
When 20-year-old Yana Mazurkevich saw sexual assault convict Brock Turner being released from prison on Friday after serving just three months of his six-month sentence, she wanted to give him the middle finger. But instead of settling for flipping off her television or computer screen, Mazurkevich, a junior photography major at Ithaca College, turned her anger into art.
The result is It Happens, a photo series depicting campus rape in some of the settings where it might occur: in a bathroom; in a classroom; in a locker room; in an alley; and lastly, behind a dumpster.
These backdrops are hardly the frat basements and nightclubs many would consider the typical environments of sexual assault. But when more than 85% of victims know their attackers, Mazurkevich's photos are more realistic, showing the private, everyday places where sexual assault occurs.
In each photo, the victims — who represent a range of genders, races and sexual orientations — look directly into Mazurkevich's camera lens.
"The photos are asking you to put yourself in their shoes," she said in an interview on Tuesday. "They're making eye contact with the viewers and it's really a cry for help."
It Happens is a follow-up to an earlier photo series called "Dear Brock Turner," a project Mazurkevich started in April following Turner's March 30 conviction. Turner was found guilty on three felony charges for assaulting an unconscious woman lying on the ground behind a dumpster.
The portraits show women stripped down to their bras holding signs that read "I should know how to protect myself" and "My skirt was too short" — all-too-common victim-blaming accusations — as arms grope at their bodies from behind.
It'd have easy been for Mazurkevich to harp on Turner, whose lenient sentence has made him the poster child for white male privilege and the flawed criminal justice system, but the photographer wanted to broaden the conversation. "If it weren't for that last image," she said, referencing the final photo of It Happens, "it wouldn't have anything to do with Brock Turner — it'd just be about sexual assault in general."
"There are so many other court cases people don't know about and they happen every single day," she continued. "I wanted the series to speak on its own and show that it happens with anyone, anywhere, any time."
Mazurkevich, who herself is a survivor of sexual assault, said she had to do something she'd never done before to complete the photo series: put herself in the mindset of a perpetrator. She asked herself, where would someone try to commit assault? How would they use their power? How would they make sure their victim wouldn't get away? How would they make sure no one would see?
She also wanted to be mindful of stereotypes, making sure people of color weren't consistently portrayed as the perpetrators and reminding viewers that sexual assault isn't a problem exclusive to straight relationships. Finally, she wanted to ensure the models posing as victims didn't feel victimized themselves.
"Staging the photos made me think, 'I've been through this,'" Mazurkevich said. "I made sure the models were comfortable and then I told them, 'Imagine yourself in that position. Empathize with that position.'"
Mazurkevich said the final image drives her message home, calling the photo of a woman behind a dumpster — the only figure in the series who appears alone, with no assailant in sight — a "wake-up call" for viewers.
In a way, she said the series will always be unfinished.
"I depicted what I could, and I could have continued to portray even more scenarios, but that would be thousands more to photograph," Mazurkevich said. "The reason? There are countless sexual assaults all over the world that it would be impossible to depict each and every one of them."